Leo finally got his Oscar, but the big story coming out of last week’s Academy Awards show was Vice President Biden and Lady Gaga teaming up to elevate the issue of sexual assault. Gaga, herself a survivor, performed “Til It Happens To You,” which she wrote for The Hunting Ground, a powerful documentary about campus sexual assault. Certainly the most moving part of the show was when fifty survivors came—literally—out of the shadows to join Lady Gaga at the piano for the song’s finale. We got to catch up with Maya Weinstein, who was on stage for the powerful moment, about the performance, her advocacy, and what student governments can do post-Oscars.
Name: Maya Weinstein
Campus: George Washington University (alumna)
Leadership role: Sexual assault policy advocate
Major(s): Criminal Justice & Human Services
NCLC: First, tell us about the lead up to the Oscars. What was it like getting the call, and what was the rehearsal process like?
Maya: I got an email last Sunday and I read it five times. Everytime I read it, I read something different. They emailed some of us who were involved in The Hunting Ground, and I went from “oh Gaga’s nominated for this award” to “oh I’m gonna be on stage while she’s singing the song.” And then I called my dad, and I cried
I couldn’t really tell any friends because it was strictly confidential, but luckily I was supposed to be out in California that week already. We had rehearsals Friday, Saturday, and all day Sunday. It was some people from Hunting Ground, then some survivors they networked and brought in from all over the country.
NCLC: You were heavily involved with sexual assault policy advocacy at George Washington University (GW). How has your work on campus and involvement in The Hunting Ground shaped your advocacy?
Maya: For me, a lot of what I focus on is the university’s mishandling of a case and the response. After my assault, I brought a proposal to the administration with ways to improve policy and the hearing process. I worked on the provost’s Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, and have tried to work with different student association candidates to make sure their platforms are really solid so that this work can continue.
I was involved in GW Students Against Sexual Assault, and we did Take Back the Night, peer education programs and all that, but I always focused on the response—what happens after someone reports. Prevent [assaults] however you can, but I personally feel it’s more tangible work when someone is disclosing to me, and I’m helping them directly. Sometimes when I’m speaking to a room and saying “Don’t rape” I feel it’s falling on deaf ears, because so many of these students don’t even know what rape is, which is a problem.
I’ve shared my story on a lot of different platforms, and people kind of know that they can talk to me or refer people to me. Because I’ve become more vocal, many people have disclosed to me about their own experiences, and those are the people I know I’ve reached, those are lives that have been impacted by advocacy.
NCLC: The Oscars award show is probably second only to the Superbowl and NFL playoffs in terms of audience and reach, so what does that mean to you and for the cause, seeing the conversation come to the forefront on that type of platform?
Maya: When we were backstage, when we were about to go on, Gaga gave this spiritual monologue, and that’s when it clicked—just how many people would be watching it and how many people would be affected by it. And there are people past college, or not in college, who might not understand the culture of college campuses and how a sexual assault on campus is unique to that culture. Maybe those people are having a revelation, realizing it happened to them or a loved one. Everyone was so connected in that moment, and I think people are going to come forward and in some way have this catharsis. Vice President Biden spoke about the importance of men getting involved with this issue and standing up to (and for) each other, and that’s a huge takeaway for such a big audience.
How do you think student government can better partner with advocates like you to really champion this issue?
- Listen. Student body presidents want to get fifty million things done, and finding the right advocate to help on this issue can help it get farther. Go to survivors and advocates on campus, sit down and listen to what they want to see change, and how it could be changed. Then empower them as a partner.
- Build a coalition. Student organizations must work together. There should be more unity between organizations, and everyone brings unique expertise that the whole group needs. It’s all about finding the right surrogates.
- Don’t back down. Institutions are under a lot of pressure and the issue has become really politicized. Student government is a unique platform with actual power and access that can help give voice to so many survivors, and make things better for them and future students. It’s worth it because we’re talking about our friends and sisters and brothers. If you can harness that and collaborate, then there can be long-term positive change.